We're Off To Uruguay For An Asado

In South American countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, there's a tradition of throwing the most badass meat + fire cooking events called asados. (Like with barbecue in the States, the term is used to describe both an event and cooking technique.) Later this week some of America's most-decorated 'cue men will gather in Uruguay for five days of cooking, drinking, a day at the beach and, of course...horseback riding. What?! To be explained later.

The six pitmasters are gathering at Estancia Belcampo, a biodynamic farm, dairy and artisan meat facility attached to a luxury hotel called Posada Belcampo. It's quite the concept: working farm set next to a luxury resort. Food tourism is blowing up, people.

The venture is in partnership with environmentally attuned Belcampo Farm, located in Northern California's Shasta Valley. The lineup of chefs on the trip is stacked, including Nick Pihakis and Drew Robinson (Jim 'N Nick's), Donald Link (Cochon and Herbsaint), Stephen Stryjewski (Cochon), Ryan Prewitt (Herbsaint) and Rodney Scott (Scotts BBQ).

Slow Food pioneer and food consultant Anya Fernald is one of the trip's organizers and a pretty cool lady. We checked with her to find out what the chefs are in for. And as a VERY cool bonus, Drew Robinson has offered to document all the action for Food Republic. Check back this week for his dispatches. Including horseback riding. Giddy up, Drew.

Both American and European tourists travel to Uruguay specifically for asados. Why are these so cool?

It's absolutely unique in the world. The asado, originally, was a bunch of gauchos on the range looking to eat everything they could from a steer they had slaughtered (the rest they would dry into charque or have to toss). So, you basically had a meat orgy for a day or two as you tried to get as much beef into your body as possible.

Our asados at Estancia Belcampo look to recreate a the early Uruguay asado experience. You have incredible grass-fed meat right off the pampas being slow grilled over an oak and eucalyptus fire for hours. It's a very different selection of cuts than we'd use in the States –for example, whole racks of ribs from mature beef are scored and cooked on the grill for a couple hours; the asado chef will also toss on a whole rump roast or round onto the grill for half a day and then slice it thin with chimichurri.

The chef lineup here, it's damn cool. What were you looking for in the chefs you invited?

The chefs are all part of a group called the Fatback Collective, organized by Nick Pihakis—the founder of Jim 'N Nick's. Nick and I have been talking for a while and his goal is to inspire these chefs (and other chefs across the South) with quality meat production around the world. This trip came from those conversations.

What will these chefs take away from the week?

They'll learn another form of New World meat cooking that will be a great counterpoint to their deep expertise in Southern BBQ. They'll also get to see a food culture where most people are still directly connected with how animals are raised.

Take me through the steps of an asado...

We start about eight hours before the meal with lighting the fires. Asados are of course cooked over burning embers and we don't use any charcoal, so it takes a while to burn the wood down to the right state. We have three large cooking fires in the asado, so we build a big bonfire at each. After about two hours of fire, we start cooking the slowest cuts — usually a whole fatty little lamb and maybe a suckling pig.

Two hours before, most of the beef goes on. We usually put the beef ribs onto a sort of upright grill and stand it up next to the fire, then the roasts go on the grill, the standing rib rack if we're doing that. The final cuts to go onto the fire are the ones we eat first: the innards. Whole beef kidneys, loads of sweetbreads, along with blood sausage and pork chorizo. All of these cuts are cooked low and slow. We usually grill little traditional beef tallow crackers, [called] galletas de campo, and the innards are served on the tallow crackers.

Damn, and this is before the diners even show up!

When our diners show up, we start out with a stiff cocktail or two, usually a Pisco or a caipirinha, that we drink with the fatty innards and sausages. Then we make our way down to the main dining table where the meats are served. Since our vegetable garden is in full swing right now (it's mid-summer in Uruguay), we usually have loads of grilled vegetables as well—carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips, whole fava beans. The chef cooks these in a thick cast iron pan alongside the meats.